Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Gogel v. Kia: When are HR employees protected against retaliation?

On July 29, 2020, in Gogel v. Kia Motors Manufacturing of Georgia, Inc., the full Eleventh Circuit ruled that Andrea Gogel did not engage in protected activity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when she purportedly encouraged or "recruited" another employee to file an employment discrimination suit against the company. As a result, firing her for this conduct did not violate Title VII. The court reasoned that because Gogel was the Team Relations manager, her conduct so interfered with her job performance that it rendered her ineffective in her position. Ultimately, even if the majority should not have rejected Gogel's claim, it was not for the reasons advanced by the dissenters.

Judge Beverly Martin erroneously argued in dissent that Gogel established a prima facie case of retaliation merely by assisting another employee in filing an EEOC charge. In Martin's view, the reasonableness of this conduct, in light of Gogel's job duties, is irrelevant to whether the conduct was protected and is instead relevant to whether the company's reason for firing her was a pretext for retaliation. 

Martin is plainly wrong. As explained in the EEOC's retaliation guidance, when an employee opposes an employer's action, the conduct is only protected if the manner of opposition is reasonable. As Martin would have it, though, the reasonableness of the opposition is relevant to whether the employer was motivated by discrimination. In other words, even when an employee was fired in retaliation for protected activity, it is nonetheless lawful if the protected conduct was unreasonable because it made the employee ineffective in her position. Title VII, however, does not include a reasonableness defense to otherwise unlawful retaliation, so Martin's critique of the majority comes up short.

The other major dissent, by Judge Robin Rosenbaum, is equally flawed. Rosenbaum challenged the foundation of the majority's analysis. She contended that the majority was required to balance "the purpose of [Title VII] and the need to protect individuals asserting their rights thereunder against an employer's legitimate demands for loyalty, cooperation and a generally productive work environment." Rosenbaum failed to recognize, however, that the majority had done the required balancing.  The majority explained that an employee's conduct is not protected opposition if it "so interferes with the employee's performance of her job that it renders her ineffective in the position for which she was employed." Clearly, this rule is intended to balance the employer's and employee's interests in situations like the one at hand. It would be perverse if an employer were prohibited from taking an action based on conduct that made an employee unable to do her job. Short of this threshold, the balance weighs in the employee's favor, but once it is reached, the balance weighs in favor of the employer. 

If the majority did in fact err, it was in concluding that Gogel's conduct interfered with effective job performance. At bottom, the company's decision to terminate Gogel rested on little more than the belief that Gogel had met with Ledbetter and provided the name of the attorney Gogel was planning to meet. Even if the company believed this, there were factual disputes that might have permitted a jury to conclude that Gogel's conduct did not rise to the level of making her an ineffective Team Relations manager.  The majority cautioned that a court should not "sit as a super-personnel department" by second-guessing an employer's decision not to "extend amnesty to an employee who has decided that she no longer needs to perform her job duties." But in making this contention, the majority assumes that Gogel was no longer performing her job duties, and given factual disputes about those duties, such as the extent to which Gogel was responsible for handling EEO investigations, that determination was better left for a jury.









This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.


Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Babb v. Wilkie: A Hollow Victory for Federal Employees

In Babb v. Wilkie, No. 18-882 (U.S. Apr. 6, 2020), the Supreme Court held that a federal employee alleging age discrimination can prevail even if age was not a but-for cause of the final personnel action being challenged. 

Although nominally ruling for the petitioner, a longtime employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Court has in reality handed a significant win to federal agencies. The Court's ruling is akin to a loss for employees because the Court rejected the less stringent motivating-factor standard applicable to most private-sector claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and instead doubled down on the principle that but-for causation is the default standard.

Pursuant to § 633a(a) of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, "[a]ll personnel actions affecting [federal] employees or applicants . . . shall be made free from any discrimination based on age." The Court agreed with the petitioner that, because this provision does not merely require that personnel actions be free from age discrimination but also that the making of those actions be free from age discrimination, the statute "demands that personnel actions be untainted by any consideration of age." Thus, the Court concluded that a federal agency violates the ADEA if it engages in age discrimination in the process of making a personnel decision even if it would have made the same ultimate personnel decision in the absence of discrimination.

To illustrate this principle, Justice Alito explained that it would violate § 633a(a) if a federal agency gave numerical scores based on non-discriminatory factors to candidates for promotion and then docked candidates who are forty or older five points. Under such circumstances, an applicant forty or older could establish a violation if his or her score was docked five points because of age even if the person selected for promotion received a score more than five points higher and thus the age-based scoring system did not affect the outcome for the applicant.

If the Court had stopped there, then the decision would be a significant victory for federal employees and applicants. However, the Court went on to explain that, under § 633a(a), "age must be the but-for cause of differential treatment" even if age was not the "but-for cause of the ultimate decision." In adopting this framework, the Court rejected the alternative advanced by the petitioner. In her brief, the petitioner contended that the phrase "based on age" in § 633a(a) does not constitute a standard of causation and "simply identifies the type of discrimination—'age' as opposed to some other characteristic—that is prohibited by the statute." Citing recent federal-sector decisions by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the petitioner contended that if a federal-sector plaintiff establishes that age was a motivating factor for a personnel action, then the burden of proof shifts to the agency to show that it would have made the same decision in the absence of age discrimination.

The Court unquestionably rejected this interpretation, instead applying the default rule of but-for causation:

Under § 633a(a), the type of discrimination forbidden is "discrimination based on age," and "[i]n common talk, the phrase 'based on' indicates a but-for causal relationship." Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47, 63, 127 S.Ct. 2201, 167 L.Ed.2d 1045 (2007); cf. Comcast Corp. v. National Assn. of African American-Owned Media, ante, at ––––. Therefore, § 633a(a) requires that age be a but-for cause of the discrimination alleged.
The upshot of the Court's interpretation of § 633a(a) is that a plaintiff is not limited to challenging final personnel actions, yet the plaintiff still bears the burden of proving that the discrimination alleged would not have occurred but for the plaintiff's age.

To be sure, the Court ruled for the petitioner and agreed that § 633a(a) provides broad protection against age discrimination in the making of personnel actions. Still, given the rejection of the motivating-factor standard, the ruling will likely do little to help plaintiffs prevail when, as in the vast majority of cases, they challenge actual personnel actions.















This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.









Sunday, April 5, 2020

Can someone be too old to be a professional driver or pilot?

A few days ago, the EEOC filed a lawsuit alleging that a job applicant was denied a position as an airport shuttle driver because of his age. As reported by media sources, the applicant was 79 years old and met the general job requirements but was denied the job because the employer's insurance policy did not cover drivers 75 and older. The EEOC's suit raises the obvious question of whether -- and if so, when -- someone can be too old to be a professional driver.

Under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, it is generally unlawful to discriminate against a worker based on age. If age is a "bona fide occupational qualification" for a particular position, however, then taking a decision based on an individual's age is not unlawful. Although older age is not a perfect predictor of whether an individual can perform a particular job safely, older age correlates with various physical and neurological conditions that can affect the ability to drive and perform other tasks.

The correlation between a driver's age and risk to public safety will naturally be reflected in insurance costs. As a result, insurance companies may charge exorbitant rates or even refuse to insure drivers who exceed a certain age. In Enlow v. Salem Keiser Yellow Cab, 389 F.3d 802 (9th Cir. 2004), a 73-year-old cab driver was fired after his employer learned that its new insurance policy, which it had not reviewed before purchasing, did not cover drivers over the age of 70. As recognized by the court, given the employer's need to insure its drivers, the employer might be able to show that it was permissible to fire drivers over a certain age if insuring them was prohibitively expensive.

The public safety question also arises where an employer claims that an individual is too old to be qualified to work as a professional pilot. In 2006, the EEOC filed a suit against Exxon Mobil, challenging the company's policy of requiring corporate pilots to retire at age 60 (later revised to require retirement at age 65), which was patterned on FAA regulations.

As the court explained in the Exxon case in ruling for the defendant:

Exxon has established that it was compelled to adopt the rule because there are no adequate means of individually testing each pilot. Exxon presented the testimony of several medical professionals—including a cardiologist and neurologist—and the reports of multiple organizations on the issue. Each affirmed the notion that there are no adequate medical tests that would help Exxon predict whether a pilot was at risk for suffering sudden and subtle incapacitation while in flight. Further, the evidence confirmed that the risk for this incapacitation increased significantly with age and no individualized testing could account for this increased risk.
Although the EEO laws are meant to protect workers from discrimination unrelated to job performance, they should not override public safety and reasonable business practices. An EEOC representative is quoted in the EEOC's press release involving the airport shuttle driver as stating that "job seekers should be evaluated based on their qualifications, not their age." The issue in this case, however, is whether the applicant's age rendered him unqualified. 

There is, of course, no safety exception to the prohibitions against age discrimination. On the other hand, risks to safety can be weighted more heavily than many other risks. Thus, a small risk might be unacceptable if it could lead to serious injury or death, even if a similar risk might be acceptable in other contexts that do not involve comparable injuries. 










This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Why the Women's National Team Soccer Players Should Lose Their Equal Pay Act Suit

The U.S. Soccer Federation suffered a backlash after arguing in a legal filing that the Women's National Team should not prevail on their claim under the Equal Pay Act because female players have less "skill" and less "responsibility" than their male counterparts. Whether the skill and responsibility required for female players are equal to those required for their male counterparts is crucial because an EPA violation can only arise if an employee is paid less than someone of the opposite sex in a job that requires "equal skill, effort, and responsibility." Regardless of the merits of USSF's arguments that female and male players do not perform equal work, however, I believe there is a fundamental flaw in the WNT's case that must doom their suit.

In addition to comparing themselves to male players performing equal work, the WNT also must establish that they perform their work in the same "establishment" as the male players. If the WNT cannot show that the work is performed in the same establishment, then they must automatically lose their EPA claim. As USSF has pointed out, the term "establishment" generally refers to a particular physical place of business. Two or more physical places of business can constitute the same "establishment" under "unusual circumstances," such as where a central administrative unit hires all employees, sets wages, and assigns the locations of employment; employees frequently interchange work locations; and daily duties are virtually identical and performed under similar working conditions. 

The WNT tries to fit its case within the exception to the same-physical-place rule:
Here, USSF is a "single establishment" because it is undisputed that it has centralized control over WNT and MNT job descriptions, budgeting, planning, scheduling, event marketing, and decisions relating to licensing and broadcasting. With few exceptions (such as coaches and press officers), the majority of USSF employees perform work for both the WNT and the MNT. USSF's central administration also makes decisions about game venues, hotels, travel, meals and other terms of employment for both teams as part of the same process. And, as described in more detail below, the MNT and WNT are both promoted by Soccer United Marketing ("SUM"), the for-profit marketing arm of Major League Soccer, in a manner such that a breakdown of broadcast and sponsorship revenues between the two teams "can’t be done."
In my view, the primary flaw in the WNT's argument is that they focus on USSF generally rather than on the WNT and MNT specifically. The WNT can only prevail if female soccer players are performing their work in the same establishment as male soccer players. And it is clear that they are not. Despite USSF's centralized control over both the WNT and MNT, they are completely segregated. Male players can never switch to the WNT, and female players can never switch to the MNT. And, of course, male players only play against other male players, and female players only play against other female players. Even if most USSF employees perform work for both the WNT and MNT, that says nothing about the work performed by the members of the WNT and MNT themselves.

The WNT has largely litigated their equal pay suit in the media, and the perceived unfairness of paying female soccer players less than male soccer players has made it easy for the WNT to garner public sympathy, regardless of the strengths of their legal arguments. To be sure, sexist attitudes and misogyny may play a role in the lower wages of female athletes. But the scope of the EPA is limited, and given the complete segregation between female and male soccer players, the NWT's EPA claim must fail.






This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Rizo v. Yovino on Remand: Pure Nonsense

On February 27, 2020, on remand from the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit issued its long-awaited new en banc decision in Rizo v. Yovino, No. 16-15372, holding that an employer may not rely on salary history under the Equal Pay Act to justify a salary differential between workers of the opposite sex performing equal work.

The underlying principle makes sense in theory -- women's wages have been depressed historically, so reliance on salary history perpetuates sex-based pay discrimination. By adopting a per se rule that salary history can never be used as a defense under the EPA, however, the Ninth Circuit has clearly gone too far. A female applicant, for example, could be currently earning more than a male applicant with similar qualifications, so relying on pay history in such a case presumably would not be sex discrimination yet still would not qualify as a factor other than sex under the Ninth Circuit's reasoning.

The elephant in the room has always been salary negotiations, and this is where the Ninth Circuit has made its most egregious error. If a job applicant voluntarily reveals his or her salary history to bargain for higher starting pay, should it be legal for the employer to take that information into account? How can employers compete for the best talent if they cannot entice applicants to leave their current employers by offering to beat, or at least match, what applicants are currently earning?

In the Ninth Circuit's previous en banc decision, which was vacated by the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit side-stepped this issue:
We do not decide, for example, whether or under what circumstances, past salary may play a role in the course of an individualized salary negotiation. We prefer to reserve all questions relating to individualized negotiations for decision in subsequent cases. 
In the Ninth Circuit's new decision, rather than leave this issue open, it has tackled it head on:
Our holding prevents employers from relying on prior pay to defeat EPA claims, but the EPA does not prevent employers from considering prior pay for other purposes. For example, it is not unusual for employers and prospective employees to discuss prior pay in the course of negotiating job offers, and the EPA does not prohibit this practice. Certainly, our opinion does not prohibit this practice. But whatever factors an employer considers, if called upon to defend against a prima facie showing of sex-based wage discrimination, the employer must demonstrate that any wage differential was in fact justified by job-related factors other than sex. Prior pay, alone or in combination with other factors, cannot serve as a defense. 
. . . The statute places no limit on the factors an employer may consider in setting employees’ wages, but it places on employers the burden of demonstrating that sex played no role in causing wage differentials.
Yes, that's right, the Ninth Circuit has taken the position that it doesn't violate the EPA for an employer to take sex into account when setting pay. It merely prohibits employers from relying on sex to justify pay differentials.

First of all, this conclusion is flatly contrary to the EPA, which prohibits paying opposite-sex workers in the same job unequal wages unless the differential is based on a factor other than sex. If salary history is never a non-sex factor, as the Ninth Circuit has held, then it is an EPA violation for an employer to rely on it when negotiating a prospective employee's starting salary.

Second of all, it makes little sense to say that it is lawful for an employer to rely on prior pay (or any other sex-based factor) in setting pay but then say that the employer may not rely on that factor if it is later sued by someone who says he or she is paid less than someone of the opposite sex in the same job. Despite proclaiming its intention to prevent the perpetuation of sex-based pay discrimination, the Ninth Circuit has concluded that sex-based pay discrimination is not itself a violation of the EPA, only that an employer will not be able to defend itself if an employee can establish a prima facie case.

If the Ninth Circuit really thinks that prior salary is always tied to sex, then it must acknowledge the implications -- an employer cannot rely on salary history even if it is raised voluntarily by an applicant in the context of salary negotiations. The Ninth Circuit cannot have it both ways.






This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.